Saturday, June 25, 2011

Revolution, war, and canning

Next time you open a can of vegetables or fruit, think about revolution. Think about war. Without either, canning may not have developed to what we know today, or certainly not as rapidly as it did.

I came across this fascinating relationship in an obscure book, The Canned Food Reference Manual (American Can Company, 1943). I was about to toss it into the donation pile when I caught a glimpse of the image of Nicolas Appert, as he might have looked in the late 1700s/early 1800s, and paused to see how he figured into a 20th century reference manual for canned food.

Nicolas Appert, of France, is generally credited with discovering the process of canning, having spent the most time of anyone developing a method for food preservation between 1795 and 1810.

In 1795, France was not only experiencing revolution, it was also fighting wars in Europe. Adequate and safe, nutritious food supply to the soldiers became a serious issue, so the French Directory--the governing board that ruled the country--offered a sizable cash prize to anyone who could devise a successful method for preserving food.

Appert was a Parisian confectioner with no technical knowledge or experience in the processes he experimented with. That he not only invented a process through trial and error, but also was awarded the prize, is a remarkable feat in scientific achievement. He didn't exactly know why his methods worked, just that they did based on certain principles such as cleanliness, the application of heat to the food, and a proper seal.

In 1810, Appert published the first treatise on food preservation, based on his years of research and experimentation. Below is an image from the book that depicts this rare manuscript, L’art de conserver, pendant plusieurs années toutes les substances animales et végétales.


A decade later, Boston became home to the first canning operations in America and Appert's methods were used. The canning industry grew steadily in America from Appert's work, but war, once again, created the demand that really kicked the industry into high gear. The Civil War, followed by the Spanish-American War and World Wars One and Two, each pushed the industry to refine methods and processes and greatly increase production.

Without the heavy demands created by war, would food preservation have advanced as rapidly? Arguably not, but certainly it would have gotten to the level we know today as populations increased along with advances in science and technology through the last century.

Food for thought.